Yesterday, the Twitter account for the Seeing Red podcast, hosted by the omnipresent Will Leitch and Bernie Miklasz, posted a ranked list of the 22 seasons for the St. Louis Cardinals this century. Here is that tweet.
I agree with some of this list and disagree with other parts of it, but also it’s easy to criticize Leitch and Miklasz, whose work I like, and much harder to actually put a foot forward and explain your own stances. So here is how I rank the seasons.
22. 2007: I can’t argue against the Seeing Red list on this one. If 2006 concluded like a joyous night out on the town, 2007 felt like a six-month-long hangover. At a 78-84 record, it is to date the only losing season for the Cardinals in the 21st century. The year was a mediocre slog in which the roster-building flaws that a miraculous October 2006 helped to obscure were placed front and center: Albert Pujols remained great, Adam Wainwright took a step forward, but by and large, the team just looked a lot older. The return of Rick Ankiel did make for a fun little subplot, but from Josh Hancock’s tragic death in April to Juan Encarnación’s gruesome, career-ending eye injury in August, 2007 was a year of just absolutely garbage vibes.
21. 2017: The gross feelings of 2017 were far more tempered than those of 2007 (nobody died, which helps), and the rises of Tommy Pham and, to a lesser extent, Paul DeJong were pleasant surprises. But this 83-79 team, despite occasionally tempting fans with the threat of a division title, eventually fell well out of contention, and other than Pham, the team’s best players were all fairly far removed from their highest highs with the organization–Carlos Martínez, Lance Lynn, Matt Carpenter, and Jedd Gyorko were all fine, but none were particularly inspirational.
20. 2020: The 2020 Cardinals made the playoffs, and I am going to try my best to divorce the generally crummy nature of the world in 2020 from the Cardinals themselves. But the season itself was also deeply unpleasant. I can’t hold it against the Cardinals that the season didn’t start until July 24, but then came a seventeen-day layoff from July 29 through August 15 as a result of a COVID-19 outbreak within the Cardinals’ organization. Over the final 43 days of the Cardinals’ regular season, they were forced to play 52 games and eleven seven-inning double-headers. A sixty-game season wasn’t going to be great, but having it reduced again as a direct result of a worldwide pandemic to force a mediocre and ugly 30-28 regular season, followed by a brief three-game playoff loss to the San Diego Padres makes matters worse. Also, no fans, while the safe move, was also an absolute bummer.
19. 2021: Slightly worse on-field vibes than 2020. But having fans helps.
18. 2008: The Cardinals only finished lower than third place one time this century (given the utter collapse of the Cubs in 2021, this will likely continue into 2022), and it was in 2008. At 86-76, this wasn’t exactly a terrible season, but they fell out of even peripheral division contention in August and in the grand scheme of modern Cardinals season, this one was a pretty forgettable one. Albert Pujols claiming his second NL MVP award and the ascent of Ryan Ludwick into an MVP-caliber player, if however briefly, were certainly highlights, but the season was mostly characterized by forgettable spare parts like César Izturis and Todd Wellemeyer getting a ton of playing time.
17. 2003: The Cardinals certainly had worse seasons this century, but they never had a more frustrating one. Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, J.D. Drew, and Edgar Renteria were each performing at near-peak form–to date, no Cardinals team in the 2000s produced more collective offensive Wins Above Replacement, and only the 2000 team scored more total runs. The year even provided us with a brief surge of Bo Hart Mania. But the pitching was rough–only Matt Morris and Woody Williams had what could reasonably be called decent seasons as starting pitchers, and while the team had a division lead as late in the season as the day after Labor Day, the wheels fell off and the Cardinals surrendered their division crown to the hated Chicago Cubs, finishing in third.
16. 2018: The 88-74 record was perfectly fine, though not good enough to make the playoffs, but the path was all over the place. There was the Carlos Martínez injury which relegated him to the bullpen and Adam Wainwright’s career seemingly imploding overnight (I can only judge how I felt in the moment; things have turned around rather nicely), but there was also the ascent of Jack Flaherty and Miles Mikolas, who received Cy Young votes in his first season back from playing in Japan. There was the absolutely exhausting discourse surrounding Dexter Fowler’s awful season, but there was also the rise of Harrison Bader…but then there was also the Tommy Pham trade that still evokes groans from Cardinals fans. Perhaps most extremely, there was Matt Carpenter, who had two months of being unplayably bad and four months of being the best hitter in baseball. And there was the interpersonal drama of relievers Bud Norris and Jordan Hicks, which corresponded with the season’s biggest story–the dismissal of manager Mike Matheny. That the team turned around under Mike Shildt is a double-edged sword–it made the season’s record far better, but it also made us all collectively wonder what could have been had things gone a slightly different direction.
15. 2016: The lingering sense that the Chicago Cubs were about to take over the NL Central came to fruition almost immediately, but the Cardinals did engage in a Wild Card race which was competitive until the very final day of the regular season. And along the way, as long as one kept their expectations reasonable, there was some entertainment. Carlos Martínez had his finest season and Seunghwan Oh had a surprising jump to the role of team closer. Aledmys Díaz, a long-before forgotten prospect, came up out of nowhere and became a Rookie of the Year finalist. Rather humorously, the team’s home run leaders were Jedd Gyorko, the guy the Cardinals begrudgingly took on as a utility infielder in order to off-load Jon Jay, and Brandon Moss, the highly bearded veteran acquired seemingly as a spare part at the 2015 trade deadline. And there was, of course, Matt Holliday’s three-peat of triumphant goodbyes to Busch Stadium to close out the season. 2016 is a year best forgotten in many ways, not the least of which happened in the postseason the Cardinals couldn’t crack, but the season did have its moments.
14. 2010: The 2010 Cardinals are the most Remember Some Guys Cardinals team in my lifetime. The Cardinals began a collapse in mid-August, which detracts from this season being in the upper reaches of unpleasantness, but between Albert Pujols having his final truly capital-G Great Cardinals season, getting a second consecutive season of a reasonably healthy Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, and promising breakthrough seasons from Colby Rasmus and Jaime Garcia, there was competence here. And then there was the weirdness–a twenty-inning April game against the New York Mets in which neither team scored until the 19th and both Mets runs were scored off the two innings of relief work by outfielder Joe Mather. A grand slam from pitcher Brad Penny. And while Johnny Cueto took things too dark for any reasonable person’s liking, the bad blood provoked between the Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds via the words of Brandon Phillips is the kind of dog days drama that is all too rare in hyper-corporate modern Major League Baseball.
13. 2009: The Cardinals won a division title, acquired Matt Holliday, and had two of the NL’s three Cy Young finalists–how could I possibly degrade this season? Well, it sure ended clumsily, with a sweep at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers characterized by a game-winning fly out instead smashing into Holliday’s nether region. And Chris Carpenter’s grand slam aside, while the regular season was certainly successful, it just wasn’t all that fun. I don’t believe a season must be defined by its postseason, so I would be open to ranking a season with zero playoff victories higher; I just can’t on this one.
12. 2014: I can’t pretend that in the moment, this wasn’t a very frustrating regular season. The previous season’s MVP-caliber Yadier Molina and Matt Carpenter were merely pretty good, and aside from the gaping hole which formed in right field following the collapse of Allen Craig, the everyday lineup was incredibly vanilla, with OPS-pluses ranging from 89 (Kolten Wong, a Rookie of the Year finalist) to Matt Holliday’s 127. The team’s home run leader was Jhonny Peralta with twenty-one. The rotation, despite having to deal with Jaime Garcia’s injuries, was dependable, with Adam Wainwright having his final truly great season, but this also meant for quite a few boring games. But still, 90 wins and a division title, and then a ton of memorable postseason moments. There was the eight-run Game 1 NLDS seventh inning comeback victory, the Matt Adams bat flip against Clayton Kershaw, and the Kolten Wong Game 2 NLCS walk-off. It’s best to just pretend Game 5 didn’t happen, though, in the interest of self-care. For the sake of this list, I’m not incorporating Oscar Taveras’s death a week and a half after the season’s end; this would, of course, hurt its ranking quite a bit.
11. 2002: 2002 will always be the Darryl Kile year for me. Not the 2002 Cardinals; 2002 as a whole. Maybe it’s because I was thirteen and these moments hit harder when you’re thirteen than when you’re a little bit older (and perhaps, unfortunately, a little bit more used to it), but I can’t just pretend that the team’s 33 year-old ace dying in his sleep isn’t part of the equation. But it was also, undeniably, a year of triumphs as well. The Cardinals were 23 games above .500 after June 22, carried by excellent years from Matt Morris and Woody Williams (plus a surprise career curtain call from Andy Benes), and in late July, the offensive voltron which already included Albert Pujols and Jim Edmonds achieved final form with the addition of Scott Rolen. The season ended on a sour note, with a walk-off loss in Game 5 of the NLCS to the Giants (sound familiar?), but the three-game sweep against the defending World Series champion Arizona Diamondbacks was a nice touch (even if the games started absurdly too late).
10. 2000: After two years where Mark McGwire was really the only show in town, the 2000 Cardinals were a real team. Jim Edmonds was nothing short of a triumph in his first season in St. Louis, the first base position was manned admirably by McGwire and, very surprisingly following a deadline trade, former Cardinals enemy Will Clark. And in his age-20 season, Rick Ankiel finished in second place in Rookie of the Year voting, and while things would turn ugly for him on the mound not too long after the regular season ended (literally the next game, which, hey, the Cardinals did get the win in that game and series), it was very fun in the moment. It was a 95-win division champion that set the table for what would come throughout the next several years, and the feeling that something special was happening was palpable even in the moment.
9. 2019: The 2019 Cardinals were courteous and had their one lousy stretch of the regular season alongside a Blues’ Stanley Cup run, so while the team’s 91 wins sound fairly good on their own, they felt like an even greater team. Admittedly, the offense was a bit 2014-esque, without a true standout–Paul Goldschmidt was acquired to be a superstar and was merely fine at the plate, Dexter Fowler bounced back from his awful 2018 but was still just about average, and the first blemishes in Matt Carpenter started to really reveal themselves. But the team was full of pleasant surprises. Relative non-prospect Tommy Edman, before being cast as a starter, was a superutility star. Giovanny Gallegos, who could have easily been viewed as on the wrong end of The Luke Voit Trade, pitched very well out of the pen and made the exchange seem closer to a win-win. And most famously there was Jack Flaherty, who had a merely okay first two months of the season before becoming one of the sport’s greatest stars down the stretch and into the playoffs. While the four-game NLCS sweep left a very sour taste in many mouths, the NLDS came with three memorable wins–a wild, four-run ninth inning to break a Game 1 tie, a Yadier Molina walk-off sac-fly in extra innings in a do-or-die Game 4, and a ten-run first inning in Game 5 against the Atlanta Braves to silence the Tomahawk Chop. The season had its flaws but the highs were truly wonderful.
8. 2012: The 2012 Cardinals, the first in a post-Pujols world, underperformed their peripherals throughout the season and stumbled, at 88-74, into a Wild Card spot that didn’t exist the season before, but thanks in some part to the sport’s most famous application of the Infield Fly Rule, the Cardinals were able to get into a memorable NLDS against the Washington Nationals which concluded with a torrid two-out, ninth-inning comeback in the set’s final game. But even before the playoffs, a number of Cardinals, particularly younger Cardinals who would define the next several seasons, had breakout seasons. Yadier Molina turned into an MVP candidate seemingly overnight. Allen Craig, David Freese, and Jon Jay went from nice pieces to have around to borderline All-Stars (or in Freese’s case, a literal one). There was freaking Kozmania! While the season after their previous title felt like a hangover, this season felt like a continuation of a dream.
7. 2015: I sharply disagree with Seeing Red on this one. Yes, I know they lost to the Chicago Cubs in the playoffs, and no, I didn’t enjoy that. But they won 100 games! Even when things seemingly went poorly, everything in the regular season turned out perfectly fine. Peter Bourjos and Jon Jay straight up can’t hit anymore, and Matt Holliday is hurt? Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty are just going to come up and play like All-Stars. Adam Wainwright suffers an injury while batting in late April? How about Jaime Garcia, oft-injured himself, has the best season of his career once he returned and the starting rotation as a whole’s worst pitcher, Michael Wacha, still had 17 wins and a 3.38 ERA! Carlos Martínez turning into a star in the wake of the death of his best friend in the sport, Oscar Taveras. Rock-solid middle relief performances out of seemingly nowhere from Matt Belisle, Carlos Villanueva, and Miguel Socolovich, with outstanding ones from Trevor Rosenthal and Kevin Siegrist? I can deal with a lousy four-day playoff stretch. This season rocked.
6. 2001: On paper, the seasons before and after 2001 were better–the Cardinals won “only” 93 games and, by tiebreaker, didn’t win the division. They lost a heartbreaking NLDS in five games on a walk-off from Tony Womack (three years later, he would be forgiven, but not forgotten). Mark McGwire was often hurt and not nearly as effective when healthy. So why is this ranked so high? Well, stumbling into the greatest Cardinal since Stan Musial as a twenty-one year-old certainly helps. So did truly wonderful seasons from J.D. Drew and Matt Morris, and a very surprisingly productive run from post-Deadline acquisition Woody Williams. Bud Smith even threw a no-hitter. Yes, Dave Veres stunk as closer and there was way too much of Gene Stechschulte and Luther Hackman, but when you find an Albert Pujols, that’s hard to ignore.
5. 2006: Yep, I said it. Don’t get me wrong–October of 2006 was amazing. But the second half of the regular season was a chore–like 2007 or 2021 but with a perch from which to fall. This is a team that had a seven-game lead on September 20 and a 0.5-game lead on September 28. It was excruciating at times, and the 83-78 record doesn’t exactly disprove this. But man, was October good. The most memorable game, of course, was Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS, with Yadier Molina hitting an almost inexplicable go-ahead home run in the ninth and then Adam Wainwright freezing both Carlos Beltrán and that guy from The Apprentice who was sitting behind home plate. And then in the World Series, against the Detroit “Tigers in 3” (side note–that Tigers team was fine, but they weren’t that good, and Bob Nightengale deserves mockery for his hubristic Tigers pick every single day), the comedy of pitcher errors, while certainly sloppy, were also a lot of fun from the perspective of a Cardinals fan. Even if there was a certain level of imposter syndrome associated with the season, I can’t knock a World Series title too much.
4. 2005: The Cardinals won 100 games and in the NLCS, courtesy of Albert Pujols and Brad Lidge, had one of the most memorable moments in franchise history. With Albert Pujols and Chris Carpenter, they won an MVP and the team’s most recent Cy Young Award. They even had a measure or two of Devil Magic, with Mark Grudzielanek and Abraham Núñez somehow combining for 6.4 Wins Above Replacement, and Alberto Reyes having a 2.15 ERA over 65 games in relief. And yet here they are, fourth on this list. What spoiled brats we are.
3. 2013: Is a team that bats .330 with runners in scoring position, shattering the previous all-time team record, lucky or good? Well, they can be and were both, but it’s foolish to dismiss the former factor. And yet it shouldn’t impact one’s enjoyment in any negative way if it’s happening with their team, and in fact, it turned the entire 2013 season into some weird extended version of the last two seasons’ postseason magic. Every single game seemed winnable by virtue of the sheer fact that they kept winning games. The Cardinals won 97 games and were carried once again by pleasant surprise after pleasant surprise. While Matt Carpenter had played well as a backup infielder the year before, primarily at the corner infield spots, that he became the sport’s best second baseman was unimaginable before the season. Rookies Shelby Miller and especially Michael Wacha, particularly in the postseason, burst through the door and were lights-out on the mound, and second-year swingman Joe Kelly was extremely effective as well. Trevor Rosenthal and Carlos Martínez were dynamic in the pen, and the previously unknown Kevin Siegrist notched a (I swear I checked this several times and it is not a typo) 0.45 ERA. We even got a super weird home plate obstruction World Series win (before a super less fun picked-off-first-base loss). The season ended in a less than ideal way, but the ride to the Fall Classic was delightful.
2. 2004: The best Cardinals team of my lifetime, bar none. Jim Edmonds, Albert Pujols, and Scott Rolen didn’t just play like MVPs–they played like hands-down MVPs. The starting rotation, an area of great weakness the year before, was fortified by unlikely veterans Chris Carpenter and Jeff Suppan, while the bullpen was consistently excellent. We even somehow got Larry Walker to join the party in August. The Cardinals won 105 games, and since as late as May 26 they were still within a game of .500, it felt by the end like they’d won even more. The 2004 NLCS was a classic, with the Cardinals vanquishing the hated Astros thanks to a Jim Edmonds Game 6 walk-off, a Jim Edmonds Game 7 diving catch, and a huge bottom of the sixth inning in Game 7 buoyed by Pujols and Rolen. The World Series, of course, sucked, and had the Cardinals merely lost in six or seven games, I might’ve ranked this season first–the regular season was that delightful throughout. But, well, that World Series, despite my best efforts to remember history otherwise, did happen.
- 2011: In late August, it felt like another lost season. But then, everything in September and October that you’ve heard about constantly over the years, including from me, happened. And I’m not going to cover all of that again, because if you’ve read this far, you know it all by heart. What I would like to address is that April to August 2011 was a pretty fun time, too! This isn’t 2006, where the postseason redeems an awful regular season. The Cardinals had three MVP-level offensive seasons from Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, and more surprisingly Lance Berkman, who was arguably the best hitter in the National League a season after being left for dead by the New York Yankees. Yadier Molina took a material step forward at the plate. Chris Carpenter seemed absolutely intent on absolutely never leaving the mound, even when a lack of run support kept him from many wins early in the season. Fernando Salas had a breakthrough season as the team’s closer, and when he started to run out of gas, Jason Motte took over admirably. And this was coming from a team with tempered expectations–the Cardinals hadn’t won a playoff game in half a decade and the team’s best pitcher, Adam Wainwright, was done for the season before it began. These are, of course, not the reasons 2011 is the most fun Cardinals season of the century, but they were fun little details that often are lost to history because of, well, all that other stuff.